Little Oscar Casey knows when his dad has run out of money – he opens the fridge and it is empty.
But Oscar knows they will never go hungry – thanks to the work of the L6 community centre.
In the shadow of Everton FC’s Goodison Park ground, it’s a lifeline for thousands of families like Oscar’s.
It runs a food bank, a baby bank, a school uniform “shop”, a youth club, holiday club, a free launderette and much, much more.
Without the L6 – which gets no government funding at all, relying instead on grants, donations and fundraising – thousands of families would literally not be able to survive.
Oscar spoke to the Mirror as we launch our Give Me Five campaign . We are calling on Boris Johnson to increase child benefit by £5 a week to end the scourge of child poverty.
Oscar, eight, says: “I love coming here as I get to play with my friends. And the food is really good – my favourite tea is Shepherd’s Pie.
“I know my dad only gets money on a Thursday and sometimes he runs out. I open the fridge sometimes and there is no food. If he got an extra £5 a week he would be able to get more shopping in for us.”
Oscar’s dad Danny is one of L6’s success stories. Eight years ago he was drinking, taking drugs, living on the streets – and his newborn son was on the verge of being adopted.
But with the support of L6’s chief executive Gerard Woodhouse, Danny managed to turn his life around – and get custody of his son.
Gerard says: “Nothing shocks me any more. I’ve known families go without food for five days before coming to us for help. We buy beds for children who have been sleeping on the sofa or a mattress on the floor because their parents can’t afford to buy them a bed.
“We are just a community centre – we should be putting on ballroom dancing, bingo and youth clubs. But instead 90 per cent of the work we do is around poverty.
“Last year we made almost 125,000 donations of food, clothes, toys and hampers. We sent out 2,500 Christmas dinners. On Christmas Eve we open until midnight because people who have been too proud to ask for help before then panic and come to us as they have nothing to give their kids for Christmas.
“I remember two years ago we got a call late Christmas Eve – we went round and the family had nothing. And the saddest thing was the kids had drawn a Christmas tree on the wall because they couldn’t afford to buy a tree.
“I came back to the centre, took down all our decorations and took them round to that family’s house, along with toys and food.”
We spent the day at the centre to see first-hand the work they do on the very frontline of Britain’s poverty crisis.
It is 10am on Monday morning and there is a queue of people snaking around the L6 building.
It is the first day of the centre’s new food union project – where people can pay £3.50 and choose 10 “luxury” items of shopping.
Things that most of us would see as bare essentials are classed as luxuries here – toilet roll, shampoo, nappies, sanitary products, toothpaste. These are things that parents would otherwise have to go without if they want to feed their children. Families have to make tough choices here – feed their kids, or heat their home, or buy toilet roll.
Gerard says: “I had one little boy in here the other day. He ran straight to the loo and was in and out in a minute. I said to him “that was quick” and he said I just had to go in and wipe my bum as we have no loo roll at home.”
That is the stark reality of how tough things are for people around here.
Gerard decided to launch the food union as he knows that out of pride people are reluctant to go to a food bank.
This way they get to make a contribution to their shopping and don’t feel like they are accepting charity.
Looking through the centre’s referral files – where teachers, doctors and social workers refer families in desperate of need of help – makes sobering reading.
Family after family unable to feed their children due to changes in their benefits, working parents unable to make ends meet, women fleeing domestic violence.
And two words keep being repeated over and over again….. Universal Credit . Since the introduction of the controversial benefit, the L6 has seen a 40 percent increase in referrals.
Universal Credit was rolled out in Liverpool in December 2018, and since then delays in payments, sanctions and reduction of benefits have all taken their toll.
Gerard says: “The payment now goes to one person in the household. So if the dad misses an appointment at the job centre, the whole family’s money can be stopped. For me, if the dad does something wrong, stop his money, but don’t stop the money for the kids.
“In this area 52 per cent of working people are still living in poverty. A lot of our mothers are proud to work – but they are on zero hours contracts so they don’t know how much money they will be earning from one month to the next. They might sign their child up for a school trip – but then the next month their hours get cut and they can’t afford it.”
But Universal Credit and zero hours contracts aren’t the only problem in Liverpool Six. Gerard says the area is rife with loan sharks who prey on the most vulnerable, and drug abuse is also a big issue.
He says: “The loan sharks all have their own patches – 14 streets each – and the don’t stray onto each other’s patch. We had one woman who took out a £500 loan – which with interest then spiralled to £80,000. She was forced into prostitution to try to pay it back and provide for her kids.
“Drugs are so cheap – they can get a hit for a tenner. You see the drug dealers waiting on the corner outside school for the parents after they have dropped their kids off. They wait outside the local shops, the post office – first thing in the morning when people have taken their money out.”
Gerard says that another major fear for mums in this area is having their children removed by social services.
He says: “I went to a safeguarding meeting last week where they were worried because the mum wasn’t taking her baby with her to school when she dropped her older children off. I asked her why she wasn’t taking the baby with her – it was because she didn’t have a pram.”
One desperate mum-to-be has come to the centre for help this morning. Rosemary Connolly, 38, is seven months months pregnant, her boyfriend has been jailed and she doesn’t have a single thing ready for her baby girl’s arrival – no cot, no pram, not even a baby bottle – and she has no money to buy anything.
She explains: “I’ve only got 8 weeks until my baby is due but I haven’t got a thing. My boyfriend just smoked weed all the time – that’s where all his money and my money went.
“I get £238 a fortnight benefits but that is to pay for everything – food, electricity, travel. I can barely survive day to day on that – never mind having to try to pay for all the stuff you need for a baby.
“I’ve offended in the past and I could go out and shoplift the stuff but I’d be terrified of getting caught and having my baby taken away.
“There are times when I’ve had to miss meals because I’ve got no money – I think that is why my baby bump is so small.
“I’ve had pre-eclampsia because of the stress – I was terrified of going into labour and not having the stuff for the baby. You don’t want to admit to anyone that you’ve got nothing – you don’t want people to judge you or look down on you.”
The centre has its own “baby bank” – a shipping container in the car park filled to the brim with everything a new mum would need for her baby – all brand new.
Volunteer Irene Rainey helps Rosemary pick out everything she needs for her baby girl – who she is going to call Fleur – from a cot, pram and car seat, down to vests, nappies and babygros.
Rosemary’s eyes fills with tears as she is handed £1,800 worth of essentials for her unborn child.
She says: “I just feel so relieved to have been able to come here – it is like a weight lifted from me. I feel like Gerard is my guardian angel. I’m crying now because I am so relieved and grateful. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Irene also runs the centre’s “uniform shop” – another shipping container full of school uniforms from dozens of pairs of brand new school shoes, to winter coats, PE kits, and branded school sweatshirts.
Every child referred can get £100 worth of brand new uniform – and last year the centre kitted out almost 5,000 children – with 39 per cent of those being kids whose parents work on zero hour contracts.
Irene explains: “Some of them are in desperate situations through no fault of their own.
“There are mums who have four or five kids but can’t feed them as they have been waiting eight weeks for their universal credit.
“They have to get those kids to school somehow but can barely feed them.
“We make sure that those children all have a brand new school uniform. At the start of a school term we hand out hundreds of uniforms, hundreds. I don’t see this as charity though. It is a community coming together to support each other, look out for each other.
Shoplifting is a another huge problem in this area – desperate, poverty-stricken parents feel they have no choice but to steal basic items like nappies, sanitary products and toothpaste.
So Gerard and the local supermarket devised a scheme where the store would not prosecute parents caught stealing those basic items – as long as they agreed to attend a course at L6.
Gerard says: “People stealing food or nappies, or if they tell the store that they have stolen because they needed to sell it to pay for something else, then the store agreed not to prosecute if they engaged with us.
“We work with them, we tell them what is right and wrong, then we check all their benefits. We get them doing cooking, how to make healthy meals on a budget, they cook for the youth club. Then we get them volunteering in the centre. About 45 people have been through this scheme so far and it has been successful.”
At 4pm the youth club opens and children come straight from school for activities – and more importantly food and warmth.
Gerard says: “if it wasn’t for this club, some of these kids might not get a hot meal tonight. There wouldn’t be any heating on at home and most likely they would be hanging out in the streets.
“The parents like their kids coming here because they know they are safe, warm and fed.”
In the summer holidays many families reach crisis point with no school breakfast clubs or free school meals to fill the kids bellies.
L6 steps in and cooks around 35 breakfasts each day, 70 two course lunches and then they send the kids home with an evening meal as well.
The centre has a launderette and around 60 families a week come into do their laundry for free.
Gerard says: “They don’t even have to pay for washing powder. We have had kids come here who smell because their clothes are dirty and other kids can be very cruel. So we always make sure that kids have access to clean clothes.
“Nothing surprises me any more – people will come in and say they have seen kids in the bins outside looking for food. That is just normal here now. It is another world and the sad fact is that there are lots of places like this.”
'I don’t want him to go without'
Oscar’s dad Danny Casey says: “When I was 12 I found my mum dead in bed, but two weeks before that I had found out that the man who brought me up wasn’t my dad. So I was left on my own. My brother died a year later when he was 17, so then I went off the rails. Taking drugs, drinking, I became homeless and lived on the streets for two years.
“I started robbing out of shops to survive, and then I met Gerard and he took me in. But I didn’t change – I was still doing drugs, I used to steal off him, I treated him terribly.
“But then I got to the age of 30 and I realised I was either going to die or end up in jail. Then I got a letter from the courts saying my ex-girlfriend was pregnant and the baby was going to be put up for adoption.
“It was the wake-up call I needed, I knew I had to fight for my son – I haven’t touched a single drug since. I had to go for weekly drug tests, I had to do parenting classes – I would be the only male in the room.
“Eventually I got him back when he was eight months old. It was amazing – I have never cried so much in my life. But I couldn’t have done it without the support of Gerard, Everton Nursery and the L6. They still support me to this day.
“The poverty we are going through at the minute is just ridiculous – people just can’t survive. We need more places like this.
“I am a single dad, I can’t afford to go and buy in the big supermarkets. With Universal Credit you get paid monthly so you have to budget really carefully or your money doesn’t last.
“Oscar wants everything and I don’t want him to go without – but I can’t afford everything.
“Coming here is like a lifeline for me – today I paid £3.50 and I got bacon, sausage, a cheese flan, cleaning stuff, loo rolls, noodles. It will last me the week and if I had gone to Asda it would have been a £20 shop. Bacon is a real luxury for us – I wouldn’t be able to afford it other than coming here.
“I would never go to a food bank – I would feel really embarrassed and like people were looking down on me for not being able to afford to wash and feed my child.
“I’m a single dad and I’ve got mental health issues so I can’t work. It makes it hard to have a life – there is constant stress and worry about paying the bills, feeding and clothing Oscar. I don’t want him to go without so there are some days I’ve gone without food so I can feed him, some months I’ve missed paying my rent because he needs a new pair of shoes.”
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